Q. A few weeks ago you answered a question about doctors and said that Judaism regarded them as doing God’s work. Is there a Jewish view of lawyers?
A. Despite the fact that so many Jews are lawyers, Judaism was ambivalent about whether it approved of the legal profession. In the Jewish court system there was originally no professional class of attorneys. They were simply regarded as unnecessary: the parties themselves were expected to present their own case, and the court itself examined the witnesses.
However, it was found that some litigants were not articulate or skilful enough to speak for themselves, and hence the use of spokesmen developed. The precedent was of course Aaron, who was Moses’ spokesman in addressing Pharoah: God told Moses that Aaron was to be his navi – not “prophet” in the later sense of the word, but “spokesman”.
Once the use of spokesmen became more widespread, it was accepted that in civil cases a person could assign his rights to an advocate, and the other party could not say, “You are not my adversary; I will not litigate with you”. In criminal cases the accused could appoint an advocate on the basis of the accepted rule that anyone was entitled to stand up and tell the court that he had something to say in the accused’s favour.
Eventually Jewish law gave sufficient official sanction to the practice of advocacy that it debated the issue of the payment of legal fees and whether a lawyer could change sides in the middle of a case.
However, any attorney who appears at the Beth Din with or for one of the parties is not there to inform or advise the court on legal issues; it is axiomatic that the dayyanim know the law. The lawyers are there to ensure that their client’s case is presented clearly.
There is a problem in relation to litigation outside the Jewish legal system. The halachah requires that because of the inherent justice of the Torah, disputes between Jews be dealt with by a Beth Din; this was established by the opening passage of the sidra, Mishpatim (Ex. 21:1). However, a Beth Din can give permission for a matter to be heard by the general legal system where one party adamantly defies the Beth Din summons.
Where government and/or public interests are involved, e.g. on matters of taxation, there is no halachic problem with resorting to the general courts, and the latter can in any case be used if both parties agree to appear before a judge or court that “is deemed trustworthy in their eyes”.
A question that is debated is whether a Jewish lawyer transgresses the halachah by accepting work in the general court system. Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef answers that the prohibition of going outside the Beth Din is directed to the litigant, rather than the lawyer. If both parties are non-Jewish, however, there is obviously no problem.